Growing adoption of virtual payments, cryptocurrencies, and cloud solutions is making money more digital than ever. Yet there are still plenty of friction points when it comes to how companies manage finance internally.
"Going digital" doesn't instantly create independent, autonomous systems. Accounting, expenses, procurement, and finance functions may have embraced digital technologies, but their processes rely on spreadsheets, documents, receipts, and manual confirmations.
That may be about to change.
Stakeholders now have another optimization tool in their arsenal: Software robots—aka bots—can be deployed to handle many financial tasks in a more frictionless, automated way.
Digital in Development
Digital solutions have helped shift back-office functions away from the paper-first way of doing things.
Take expenses for example: Professionals no longer need to complete paper forms and mail in physical receipts in order for finance to process reimbursements. Digital forms and receipt photos now suffice (and mobile cameras make the data-capture simple).
But while digital expense filing is fast and easy on the front end, approvals and reimbursements demand tons of manual effort.
Conducting line-by-line reviews to compare spreadsheets and numbers, for example, is a rote task that absorbs many hours of staff time. Delays can leave reports open—not to mention cash flow totals inaccurate—for longer than necessary.
A similar dynamic can rear its head essentially anywhere that data entry, routine processing, and data-janitor work absorb staff hours and days.
These unfiled expenses, unclosed reports, and inaccurate books can eventually have a major impact on cash flow and resource allocation/ROI as a mid-market company grows.
How Bots Can Enhance Your Process
Robotic process automation (RPA) comes in different forms and options — some are programmed at the enterprise level, others at the user level.
The value of the technology remains the same for both: mimicking the repetitive activities a human would otherwise do to complete an assignment—only with the speed and accuracy of automation.
Companies can set bots to work inside any structured environment, including enterprise resource planning (ERP) and finance & accounting (F&A) solutions. Bot functions include low-order “screen scraping,” line-by-line reviews for transaction verifications, plugging in payroll codes, checking missing form fields for audits and tax reporting, or any number of other repeatable back-office tasks that frequently slow time-to-close and time-to-payment.
The benefits of bots can add up fast: Over two years, one company says the 30 software programs handling its back-office tasks drove estimated savings of 25,000 hours on an annualized basis—approximately the same as 12 full-time staff members.
As companies become more comfortable with software robots—and automate more and more of their repeatable, manual processes—artificial intelligence and machine learning will likely weave the capabilities described above even further into the fabric of the workplace.
Once “cognitive” technologies for the workplace get smarter, companies will want to be in a prime position to take advantage.
And that starts with the right foundation.
Building Bots into Your Operations
Down the road, deploying bots with other digital technologies will accelerate the advantages.
Accenture research, for example, predicts the future cost of running procurement will decrease by 40% to 60% due to impacts from cloud and cognitive computing, RPA, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and predictive analytics.
That said, bots, RPA, and AI for finance today is a nascent space—one in which sensitivities and misperceptions abound.
To make any bot project successful, companies must kick off with a strong understanding of their existing F&A infrastructure, as well as how they want to evolve it.
Stakeholders can begin by assessing their existing frameworks and areas for optimization.
For example: How strong is your treasury management functionality?
A robust commercial banking partnership can ensure you have the technological groundwork to automate areas of your treasury processes—say, ensuring your integrated payables have the right controls in place.
From that point of understanding, leaders can begin crafting objectives and exploring use cases and trial applications inside their systems. (A key to success lies in finding processes where bots can make a strong improvement in quality and speed, via an easy implementation.)
Remember, however, there are limitations.
Across the industry, many companies are over-promising on the abilities of software robots by conflating them with the features that will be much more feasible once blockchain and other automation-friendly technologies are better developed.
What to do
For now, don’t fall for the hype or expect advanced AI. Just seek out opportunities to use bots in common-sense ways that surface business advantages and free up staff for more complex work.
That kind of deft human analysis in conjunction with bots is what can optimize a business, bringing you and your employees that much closer to your short- and long-term goals.